What Do Osama Bin Laden and Obesity Have in Common?

| Staff Columnist

On the surface, a notorious terrorist and a cheeseburger-fueled epidemic may appear to have little in common. However, as it turns out, about 9 million “young Americans” are “too fat to fight”, according to a recent study. The obesity epidemic has grown to such a great extent that even the military has begun to take notice. The over consumption of too many Cheetos is now a national security threat, according to retired Lt. Gen. Norman Seip.

At first glance, it seems laughable to put obesity on par with Osama bin Ladin. However, a full 27% of potential recruits aged 17-24 can’t serve due to excess weight, greatly restricting the pool of eligible soldiers. While obesity is generally thought to be a personal health issue, the characterization of obesity as a threat to national security seems to imply that our bodies don’t entirely belong to ourselves. In characterizing being unhealthily overweight as a “national security threat” the military implies that not only are obese people harming themselves but also the community as a whole.

The body is a personal domain, with which one theoretically has near-total control (apart from restrictions on ingesting controlled substances and assisted suicide). This is the reason slavery is so evil and the reason we have a bill of rights- the individual is presumed to have a sacred right to control their own lives in so far as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s pursuit of happiness. Certain duties are also expected of us, such as serving on juries and paying taxes. Voting, like joining the armed forces, is voluntary. However, both serve an important function in our society. The first shapes our government and the second serves a protective function. If there’s an extremely small base from which to draw military recruits, there is some validity to pointing to obesity as a threat to national security. This presumed “threat” is incidental rather than a pernicious plot to bring down the nation with cheeseburgers.

I don’t believe that we should implement stringent controls on people’s food intake or force obese people to lose weight, particularly in the context of a voluntary military system. Nor are only obese people to blame- there are drug addicts, alcoholics and otherwise incapacitated people who can’t serve. I’m not a fan of the military-industrial complex, though I do grudgingly accept the inevitable need for a standing, defensive army. I am also not an ardent fan of Sparta, a society that heavily emphasized the fitness of its citizens and their subjection to the state in order to create a stronger nation. In contrast, American tradition places emphasis on individual rights and prosperity. Despite heavy nationalist rhetoric, one of the most touted aspects of American government and society is the American dream by which people can enrich their own lives. We don’t have national service, nor do we have a draft; both are indicative of a higher expectation of “giving back” to one’s country by contributing to its preservation. National service implies that we owe something to our country for the services and environment provided, a debt that can be paid physically as well as monetarily. The physical debt however, is more difficult to pay if you happen to be obese. So do we owe something to our nation- a bare minimum of keeping ourselves reasonably fit so we can fight if need be? I’m not sure. It seems absurdly invasive to implement weight limits on people or outlaw smoking or ban behaviors that might be detrimental to the preservation of a nation. Individual freedoms- particularly over the state of one’s health or body- are extremely important. There is an inevitable tension between one’s personal freedom and the (supposed) good of society that should be recognized.

The changes being proposed are fairly non-invasive: limiting junk food in schools and implementing education programs to aid in healthy eating. As uncontroversial as these measures are, they are still a form of government direction. Now that the military is involved, such measures could be seen as having a less benign purpose- that’s another discussion altogether. Such measures are clearly beneficial to the individuals who are encouraged to eat more healthily. At the same time, the characterization of obesity as a “national security threat” links personal choices about health and the subsequent effects of such choices on the community.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.